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Andrew C. Thompson ~ The Logic of Holiness

There is a phrase in Wesleyan theology that holds the key to understanding most everything about present salvation. The phrase is “holiness of heart and life.” This is one of those terms that seems simple at first glance and yet is packed with meaning on multiple levels.

It’s also a term worth exploring, and I want to explore it here. But first a little detour about theological language in general.

The language we use

Conventional wisdom from “experts” dictates that we should find ordinary or commonplace words to describe Christian concepts so we can avoid putting up barriers between the Church and would-be believers. Our evangelism can be hindered, so this thinking goes, by the vocabulary we use to talk about the Christian faith.

I’ve heard some version of this perspective many times over the course of my ministry. And I’ve always had questions about it. To what length should we take this advice? Are we talking about avoiding the technical vocabulary of theology, or should we avoid core biblical terms as well? I’ve heard people suggest that we shouldn’t use the language of sin and salvation, either because it is off-putting or because it conjures up lowbrow images that good, sophisticated Christians should want to avoid. Is that a good idea?

At times, I wonder whether this point-of-view is just a concession to mainstream consumer culture. Many churches have emptied their membership requirements of anything that actually looks like, well, a requirement. The idea is to attract more people to the churches in question by becoming “seeker sensitive”—but does the evidence show that such a strategy really results in congregations filled with mature disciples of Jesus Christ?

Maybe emptying our language of its robustly Christian inflections is just another version of the almost irresistible urge to mimic the larger culture in the hopes of getting that culture’s blessing for what we Christians are doing. I think that’s likely the case. I also think it is a reason to consider an alternative strategy: Namely, embracing with gusto the vocabulary of both the Bible and the historic Wesleyan tradition. Such a strategy would seem particularly important if certain words or phrases themselves have great explanatory power for how we understand the nature of God, human beings, salvation, and discipleship.

The meaning of holiness

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul explains the nature of sanctification as a life of holiness. He describes it to the church at Thessalonica in this way: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified … For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7-8; NIV).

John Wesley was captivated by the biblical notion of holiness. He equated the life of holiness with present salvation. In one sense, holiness is that state of being purified from wickedness—in thought, word, and deed. But for Wesley, to understand the root meaning of holiness for us, we have to understand what God’s holiness really means first.

We can see the character of divine holiness, according to Wesley, in the First Letter of John. (This is the book of the Bible that Wesley once called “the deepest part of the Holy Scripture.”) It is 1 John that connects how we are to love one another with how God loves us. 1 John 4:7-8 reads, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (NRSV).

In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley keys on this passage in 1 John as capturing the real substance of biblical holiness. His comment on verse 8 reads in part, “God is often characterized as holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that shed an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

Thus, to become holy is to have your heart so transformed by God’s love that love itself becomes the defining mark of your very person. Wesley paints an image of what he means by this transformation in the 1741 sermon, “The Almost Christian.” He writes, “Such a love of God is this as engrosses the whole heart, as takes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul, and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties.”

So holiness is not a static concept. It isn’t a condition where a Christian desperately tries to avoid thinking the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, lest his spotless purity be marred by sin. Instead, it is the dynamic reality of love—transforming the believer’s life and giving the believer a new set of values and commitments that are in harmony with God’s desires for his children.

On Wesley’s account, this is the heart of the Christian life. Those who are growing in holiness are experiencing what we mean by salvation in this present life.

Holiness … from heart to life

The Wesleyan conception of holiness requires one more element in order to adequately explain how it takes root in the lives of Christian believers. This element is wrapped up in the phrase, “of heart and life” that we attach to the core term “holiness.”

When reading John Wesley’s writing on salvation, you’ll encounter some version of the phrase “holiness of heart and life” over and over again. A related phrase is “inward and outward holiness” by which Wesley means essentially the same thing.

The “heart and life” and the “inward and outward” act as qualifiers on the core term “holiness.” One way to grasp why they are important is to recognize that we never see them in the reverse order: it is never holiness of life and heart, for instance, but always holiness of heart and life.

In the church today, we often shy away from anything that emphasizes the need to experience something inwardly that we do not have any control over. We like the language of discipleship, because discipleship strikes us as something you go out “there” and “do.” What does it mean to be a Christian, we ask? And the answer is always something about getting outside the four walls of the church, making a difference, transforming the world, etc.

There is a Wesleyan critique to make to this approach to discipleship that is found in the view that holiness always moves from heart to life. Wesley himself was always highly skeptical of Christians who thought that their good works were the substance of their faith. He thought that such a view relied on what he called the “outward form of religion” while denying religion’s true power.

To put the matter another way: Wesley does not believe that you can work your way into faith, hope, and love. He rather believes that these core Christian virtues are “wrought in us (be it swiftly or slowly) by the Spirit of God,” as he puts it in a 1745 letter. And thus it is crucial that we have our hearts transformed inwardly in order for anything we do outwardly to be pleasing in God’s sight.

Commenting on Jesus’ teaching that “blessed are the pure in heart,” Wesley says that God is always well pleased with “a pure and holy heart” but “he is also well pleased with all that outward service which arises from the heart” (“Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, IV”). The logic of this movement from heart to life Wesley states in this way: the “latter naturally [results] from the former; for a good tree will bring forth good fruit” (“Heaviness through Manifold Temptations”). This is all simply a way of saying that salvation is something God does—not us.

If we want to live in this present life as God desires us to live, then we need an outpouring of his grace into our lives. We will never be able to fake true holiness through the mechanical actions of daily life—even when those actions have a religious character to them. And who we truly are inwardly will finally be shown by our outward attitudes, words, and deeds in the world. So if you want your life to be marked by holiness in an honest and authentic way, it must be lived out of a holy heart that has been made holy by the action of the Holy Spirit.

All of this means that we can’t discard a phrase like holiness of heart and life only to replace it with something more pedestrian: “learning to be more loving,” or “becoming a better person,” or some such collection of words that seems less intimidating. The phrase itself communicates a powerful message. It is about holiness—biblical holiness—that we should be concerned. That holiness only comes about in us in a particular kind of way, and it is a way that calls for us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Those recent trends to give up the traditional language of both the Bible and the Christian tradition in order to make the faith more palatable to outsiders are deeply misguided. When we go that route, we inevitably present Christianity as something less than it really is. So perhaps what we need to do is not change our language but rather repent and recognize that becoming a Christian involves a conversion—in every aspect of heart and life.